SOMERSWORTH, N.H. Al Gore yesterday abruptly ditched his strategy of ignoring Bill Bradley’s attacks and returned fire as new polls showed the vice president’s lead rapidly evaporating.
“In the closing days of the New Hampshire primary, Senator Bradley has suddenly changed,” Mr. Gore told voters at an equestrian center here. “Instead of the promised character, courage and commitment, we have manipulative attack after manipulative attack.
“Senator Bradley is now stepping down, unfortunately, to the level of personal vilification, challenging the integrity of those who disagree with him,” he added.
The vice president has been stung in recent days by Mr. Bradley’s attacks on abortion and campaign fund-raising. The former New Jersey senator has drilled Mr. Gore for flip-flopping on abortion and flaunting campaign-finance laws in the 1996 election.
“Senator Bradley has chosen two issues and attempted to manufacture differences where there are none,” said Mr. Gore, who insists his commitments to abortion rights and campaign-finance reform are rock solid.
Mr. Gore’s comments came as a new tracking poll by CNN, Gallup and USA Today showed him leading Mr. Bradley by just a single percentage point 48 percent to 47 percent. Another tracking poll by Reuters and WHDH-TV showed Mr. Gore with 49 percent and Mr. Bradley with 42 percent.
As recently as Thursday, most polls showed the vice president leading by about a dozen points in New Hampshire. But the impact of Mr. Bradley’s attacks on Mr. Gore during Wednesday’s Democratic debate was not fully reflected in three-day tracking polls until yesterday.
That prompted Mr. Gore not only to speak up in his own defense, but also to enlist the firepower of his allies in Congress. The Gore campaign yesterday released a letter from Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota and House Minority Leader Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri that scolded Mr. Bradley.
“We are concerned that in the closing days of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, his campaign has taken a sharp negative turn and veered into the kind of negative, personal attacks he has repeatedly denounced,” the Democrats wrote. “We urge Sen. Bradley not to end his New Hampshire campaign with personal negative attacks on a fellow Democrat.”
They called on Mr. Bradley to “abandon negative, personal attacks that do not bring credit to this nomination contest or to the Democratic Party.”
Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Bradley supporter, dismissed the letter and ridiculed Mr. Gore’s claim during Wednesday’s debate that he has said nothing untrue in this campaign. The Nebraska Democrat also warned that the vice president’s dishonesty would make him vulnerable in the general election.
“Republicans aren’t going to be shy about asking Mr. Gore: ‘What about Love Canal, what about “Love Story,” what about the Internet?’ ” said Mr. Kerrey, referring to subjects in which the vice president is said to have exaggerated his role.
Mr. Kerrey added that until the past few days, Mr. Bradley had been too passive in responding to the vice president’s confrontational campaign tactics. “Any human being who has been around Bradley for the last six weeks is asking, ‘Why do you act like a 6-foot, 5-inch Yoda?’ ” he said.
Yesterday, Mr. Bradley acted more like the tall, aggressive Chewbacca character than the tiny, contemplative Yoda of the “Star Wars” films. He accused Mr. Gore of “denying reality” on a variety of subjects and demanded an explanation for the campaign fund-raising excesses of 1996.
“Unless that explanation is forthcoming, then the public will reject a candidacy that fails to come to terms with this circumstance in our Democratic Party in 1996,” he told voters in Concord.
Mr. Bradley was clearly elated by his surging momentum going into the first-in-the-nation primary. He received a hero’s welcome last night from hundreds of voters who attended a town hall meeting in Exeter.